The Gili Islands are an iconic tropical paradise; you know, the stuff of idealises Instagram life and glossy travel magazines. The GIlis are a chain of three tiny islands dotted with coconut palms and banana trees and surrounded by white sand beaches nestled in the turquoise water of the Bali Sea. Populated by a community that eschews motorised vehicles in favour of horse drawn carriages or bicycles who live along side boatload after boatload of tourists, the pace of life here is necessarily slower than elsewhere on the Indonesia tourist circuit.
Now, before you get your hopes up and dream of solitary hammock on a deserted beach, know that the Gilis are beautiful, and obviously, and beautiful places attract tourists. Lots of them. So, quiet they are not. Gili Tarawangan, especially is packed with tourists, boatloads of them coming in from Lombok or across the strait from Bali. And with tourists come noise, crowds, and inflated pricing. Still, if you stick to some of the lesser visited corners of the Gilis, you can still have a taste of that lonely hammock on a beach sort of life. We were able to find unpopulated beaches. (At six am. :/ Parents of early risers, unite.)
I had the good fortune to visit Gili Tarawangan with my family, along with my sister-in-law, brother-in-law and their kids. We stayed in an AirBnB, which is often my preferred way to travel with little ones. Our villa was spacious and open, with lots of room for the kids to spread out (and spread their toys everywhere, which is kind of our MO, we’re totally the worst.) Having another family with whom to share the cost of renting a vacation home made it a little bit more affordable for us.
Gili Tarawangan (Gili T., as it’s commonly known) is widely understood to be the Party Island. Particularly down by the harbour, there’s no end of bars and restaurants with music pumping and beer flowing as soon as the revellers can roll out of bed. And while our party days are kinda dampened by two very early risers, I did like being located so close to restaurants and bars and little shops.
We elected to stay on the far end of the island, well away from the port (about 4 km by bike). This worked out really well for us; it was quiet, and we were away from most of the hubbub, but there are some lovely family friendly places close by where we could get some great food, and the kids loved the idea of going out to a restaurant by bike.
We initially thought that we’d do some self catering, cooking a few meals here and there ourselves. However the heat of mid-day often drained our motivation, as did the poor selection in the local grocery store. So, we were glad to have good restaurants close by.
Where to Eat
I think we ate at Wilson's Retreat almost every day. The menu is super old school classical French (which is kinda hilar considering we’re in the middle of tropical South East Asia), but it’s reliable and good. There was always something for the kids to eat (steak frites!), and the manager took good care of us. We spent the majority of our last day here eating, drinking, and lounging by the pool, which was 100 percent enjoyable. If eating here in the evening, it’s advisable to load up on mosquito repellent.
The vibe and decor of Casa Vintage is super chill and super lovely. Situated right on the beach with beautiful sunset views, it’s a great place to relax and enjoy an evening meal. They do an amazing jerk chicken (only available in later afternoon / evening) and there’s nice, fresh falafel and soup for veggie lovers.
We found a decent burger, a pretty yummy papaya salad, and a nice little pool open to restaurant guests at Il Pirata. Skip the fresh young coconuts, though.
We went to Little Italy for gelato and it did not disappoint! Pretty yummy! They had a “blue” ice cream to satisfy Hugo, and diary-free options for me and Stella. They also have a wood fire oven where they make some yummy-looking pizzas.
The night market is not to be missed (unless you’re me and prefer to stay home and put the baby to bed then chill out with a movie? Because yeah, that’s totally what I prefer!) But! You’ll find some lovely grilled seafood, chicken, and fresh veggies here. The food is cooked to foreign tastes, so if you like it spicy, you’ll have to ask. Oh, and I hear that the matarbak manis here is delicious.
What To Do
If you’re coming to Gili T with kids, you’re coming to chill, I think. And you’ll find that in spades. There’s plenty of beach side restaurants and bars to check out where you’ll be able to enjoy a drink while the kids play in the sand.
There’s pretty okay snorkelling right off the coast of the north end of the island, close to Wilsons. You’ll need reef shoes to walk out, but there is plenty to see.
If I could recommend, skip the glass bottomed boats. No seriously. Worst experience ever. I won’t go into detail, except to say that snorkelling with a boat full of people who do not know how to swim is not something that I’ll even do again. ;)
Instead, I’d suggest trying to hire a local guild or fisherman to take you out in a boat to the good snorkel sports. Or just go directly off the island yourself.
There’s also horse riding, surfing, paddle boarding, and other water activities, various and sundry.
What we seemed to like best was exploring the beaches in the early morning, going out to breakfast, then taking a little ocean swim and a little snorkel adventure, before relaxing most of the afternoon away.
We flew from Jakarta to Lombok, which was a short flight, under two hours. Then, a car met us at the airport. The drive back west towards the Gilis was lovely. Two hours flew by to us, old hands used to the interminable traffic jams of Jakarta. We did stop halfway through our journey at a supermarket. This, I think, is advisable because products like fresh milk, jam, cereal, etc are not widely available in Gilis.
This was a great trip. We came back to the city feeling remarkably calm and refreshed (which isn't always the case when we travel with little ones.) I would say, though, because of the number of vehicles involved in getting to Gili T., this isn't a long weekend sort of trip. I'd suggest staying a week.